Chronic stress can lead to overeating

You certainly don’t need me to tell you to reduce stress.  We all feel the effects of it regularly, from tension in our bodies to chronic headaches and illnesses.  Stress in small doses can actually be useful.  The stress you feel before a big exam may just be the motivation you need to increase your study time.  Chronic job dissatisfaction may be the needed stressor to change jobs or go back to school.  Too much stress though and we become imbalanced.

Stressors, like demanding jobs, financial and social pressures, raising a family and caring for family members all have their way of taking a toll on us.  Add to this environmental pollutants and toxins, traffic and noise and unhealthy convenience foods and our endocrine system is taxed big time. 

As chronic stress imbalances our body and brain chemistry, it overloads our coping mechanisms and leads to an emotional appetite and an exaggerated craving for energy and comfort. 

Even though you may never be able to eliminate stress all together, the goal is to be able to handle your stressors in such a way as to enjoy work and relationships, create time for relaxation and have the resilience to meet life’s challenges, all without overeating.

Stress management begins with identifying your stressors.  Take a moment and make a list of your stressors.  Break the list down into those you feel you have no control over and those you may be able to alter, avoid or change.  Some stressors, such as a job layoff or serious illness cannot be prevented and you will have to find a way to accept the stressor for now, adapt to it and cope with it.  I know, easier said than done.  But sometimes just surrendering to that which you cannot change is very liberating and therefore, stress reducing.  A few things you can do to cope with stressors outside your control include:

  • Allow yourself to feel and express all your emotions about the stressor.  There’s less chance that you’ll grab food when you’ve released pent up emotions.
  • Watch any tendency towards catastrophic thoughts.  You know, those thoughts that say “I’ll never find another job, I’ll lose my house and have to live on the streets”  or “I’m sure this pain in my stomach is cancer.”  Work on reframing these self-defeating thoughts with more positive, uplifting outcome thoughts.
  • Look for the positives.  Can you see any learning opportunities provided by this stressor?  Has it made you stronger or more resilient?  More empathic?  If you can’t see any positives and just feel bitter and resentful, that’s okay; you’re still processing the stressor and will get to the positives when you’re ready.
  • Try to take a longer-term perspective.   Will this stressor be gone, or significantly reduced in a month, six months or a year?  If so, remind yourself regularly that it will not last forever.  If it is a longer term stressor, such as the terminal illness of a loved one, remind yourself that your feelings and acceptance level are going to change with time.
  • Shift your focus.  Take some time to reflect on all the wonderful things in your life.  This includes the things you take for granted, such as the  air you breathe, running water, a roof over your head and food to eat.  Making a gratitude list daily helps take your mind off the things you can’t change.   
  • Adjust your expectations.  Life constantly requires us to shift and adapt.  Just when everything is going smoothly, you get into a major car accident.  Just when you’ve finally got your finances in order, your spouse loses his job.  With each new change, we have to create a new “now”, adjust our expectations, and get on with our lives. 

Many stressors are actually within our control.  We can, for example,  take steps to reduce excessive responsibilities, disconnect from unhealthy relationships  and even eliminate some of the toxic chemicals in our environment.  A few steps you can take to reduce stressors within your control include:

  • Assess your limits.  Evaluate honestly and realistically what you can and can’t handle while still maintaining balance.   Asking for help is a good way to lessen the stress of too much on your plate (pun intended.)
  • Practice saying “no” to added responsibilities.   When you say “no” you may find yourself feeling guilty and anxious about not being a good friend, daughter/son, wife/husband, etc.  Or you may have a feeling of being left out and worried about whether you’ll continue to be included.  Remind yourself that the people you want in your life are those who respect your need for self-care.
  • Re-evaluate relationships that cause a lot of stress.  Do you need to limit your exposure to difficult friends or relatives?  Do you need to end a relationship that is no longer mutually beneficial? 
  • Assess and adjust your personal boundaries.  Perhaps you are too enmeshed with the needs and emotions of others.  Or maybe you feel too cut off and isolated from other people.  Both ends of the boundary spectrum–too loose or too rigid–can create unneeded stress. 
  • Reduce environmental stressors.  Try buying organic fruits and veggies whenever possible to avoid pesticides.  Read food labels and try to avoid foods with unnatural additives.  Replace traditional household cleaning products with organic, green versions.  Limit the use of plastic wrap and plastic bottles that can leach hormone-disrupting chemicals.  Wear a mask when you paint.  Avoid air-fresheners, flame retardants, bug and plant sprays and find green alternatives.  Review cosmetics for hazardous ingredients like petroleum-based chemicals.  Try carpooling or mass transit to avoid traffic stress.  And exercise outdoors during low pollution hours. 

Reducing and managing stress is a process.  Trying to reduce it all at once would only add more stress.  Relax, take a deep breath and start with small changes that are easy to make.  Applaud yourself  for your willingness to take a closer look at this piece of the overeating puzzle.

Posted by Julie M. Simon, MA, MBA, MFT.  If you have a question or topic you would like to see addressed in this blog, go to http: //www.overeatingrecovery.com.

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